President Biden’s inauguration Wednesday wasn’t the high-energy event most inaugurations are, because of the pandemic. But that didn’t make the event any less significant.
While the president didn’t speak to a crowd of thousands at the Capitol, he did address millions watching at home. And the way the event unfolded was carefully orchestrated to convey a message of national unity, says Jennifer Mercieca, a communications professor at Texas A&M University who specializes in rhetoric. She told Texas Standard that from the musical performances to Biden’s speech, each portion of the program served as commentary on the difficult realities the country faces today, especially in the wake of the Jan. 6 Capitol riot. But they also conveyed a sense of hope.
Here are some highlights:
Lady Gaga singing the national anthem:
The pop singer pointed to the American Flag at the Capitol while she sang. Mercieca says it was a callback to the insurrection there two weeks ago.
“It really, you know, connected us to that moment two weeks ago where the Capitol was under attack,” Mercieca said. “For me personally, I can’t say that I’ve ever been more connected to that part of the song.”
Jennifer Lopez singing “This Land is Your land”:
Lopez put her own spin on the famous Woody Guthrie folk song, adding the last phrase of the Pledge of Allegiance in Spanish: “Una nación bajo Dios, indivisible, con libertad y justicia para todos.”
Mercieca says Lopez was speaking to the idea of belonging in America.
“So much of what we’ve heard over the last four years has been about who belongs to the United States and who doesn’t. And so I thought that it was really appropriate to have Jennifer Lopez sing that song,” Mercieca said. “She’s someone who, of course, is from Puerto Rican descent, which is, of course, part of America. But it isn’t a part that we really include in our political imagination.”
Biden’s “textbook” inaugural address:
Biden explained his political philosophy, he acknowledged the limits of presidential power and he spoke about putting the nation under God’s care – all things expected from an inaugural address, Mercieca says.
“It was hopeful. It was pragmatic. I thought that it spoke very clearly to the moment of crisis that we’re in in the United States,” she said.
Elements of repetition:
Mercieca says Biden used a rhetorical technique called anaphora to drive home the message of unity. Anaphora is when consecutive sentences start with the same word, like this part of his address: “With unity, we can do great things, important things. We can right wrongs. We can put people to work in good jobs. We can teach our children in safe schools. We can overcome the deadly virus.”
“Those all connect the ideas together in such a way that it builds. It calls our attention to it. And it tells us that this is the central part of the message that he’s trying to give us today,” she said.
Mercieca says these individual phrases are conveyed in a way that sends a larger message to the audience:
“We need to unite. And when we unite, we can we can do all of these things,” she said.